Parenting Plans / Custody Evaluations

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 Our Custody Evaluation Expertise
 Brief Overview of Parenting Plans / Custody Evaluations
 Our Tiered Approach to Parenting Plan Consults & Custody Evals
 Frequently Asked Questions & Raised Concerns
 A Word On Cost, Our Unique Expertise, And Quality

OUR CUSTODY EVALUATION EXPERTISE & TEAM APPROACH

FULL-SERVICE TESTING FACILITY & THE RIGHT KIND OF EVALUATORS (THAT IS, COMBINED CHILD & FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGISTS)
The breadth of specialty areas of our Associates makes us truly a full-service evaluation site. We can perform in-depth psychological testing, educational testing, substance abuse testing, etc. Thus regarding just about any issue raised in a custody case, we have experts who can address the issue. Having such a broad range of experts in-house allows the evaluation process to flow smoothly, and results in a comprehensive custody evaluation service. We believe in and utilize a team approach to custody evaluations, and are one of the few group practices in the area with the resources to provide a comprehensive team. Utilizing a team provides the highest quality evaluation, and makes turn-around time for completion of the report excellent. Importantly, we do not charge any more for these evaluations than others do locally for a single-evaluator report; we use a flat fee that remains the same regardless of the number of psychologists assigned to a case.

It would surprise many attorneys and parents to learn that the forensic expert doing your custody evaluation is not a child psychologist, or that the child psychologist doing your custody evaluation has no forensic training, yet that is often the case. The majority of psychology degree programs teach adult psychology, and one must choose to add a child psychology track and/or seek out being trained as a child psychologist in practicum, internship and post doc training experiences. So the vast majority of psychologists graduate educated and trained only in adult psychology. One possible screening question would be to ask if the psychologist currently or has ever done play therapy with pre-teen children as a regular part of their practice. Generally the answer would be no because it would be unethical to do so since children are outside of their area of expertise. Forensic training is just as rare, and one must again seek out coursework and training experiences in forensic psychology. A simple question about forensic training can elicit this information.

At Lepage Associates, we believe that (1) if you are going to be evaluating what is in thebest interests of children, you ought to be a child psychologist, and (2) if you are going to be providing evaluations for the court, you ought to be trained in forensic evaluation. All of our lead evaluators meet these important standards.

Expertise of Dr. Tina Lepage:

Dr. Lepage is a Licensed Psychologist and has worked as a Court Psychologist in family law cases, employed previously by two Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts before starting Lepage Associates. In addition to a Doctorate and a Master’s in clinical psychology in which she studied both child and forensic psychology, Dr. Lepage also holds a Bachelor of Science in child development and family relationships. This is an ideal combination. From the very beginning of her career, Dr. Lepage has been focusing on families. When working on custody evaluations the breadth and depth of her expertise is bolstered by her undergraduate in child development and family relationships. She brings the expertise of keenly understanding the unique developmental needs from birth through the teen years, and understanding the dynamics of family relationships.

Dr. Lepage completed both her clinical master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation in the area of assessing the best interests of the child in custody evaluations. In her master’s thesis, she reviewed the statutory criteria of all 50 states for determining the best interests of the child, and then cross-referenced these criteria with the clinical literature on the psychosocial needs of children. Thus Dr. Lepage is well prepared to address the factors the court may be most likely to focus on and view as important, while also including and bringing focus to other important developmental needs that may not be addressed in the statutory criteria. Building on this, in her dissertation she reviewed the methods and measures typically used in custody evaluations, analyzing how well these are actually able to assess the psychosocial needs of the child, the parents’ abilities to meet those needs, and parenting skills in general. Thus Dr. Lepage is very knowledgeable regarding what methods and measures are best suited to provide information relevant to custody. She is also a certified Juvenile Forensic Evaluator, trained by the University of Virginia Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy, a premier nationally recognized training institute for forensics. Having completed the Parent Coordinator (PC) Training by the Center for Cooperative Parenting in Chapel Hill, Dr. Lepage is certified to act as a PC in NC family law cases.

In her clinical practice, Dr. Lepage has a special interest in working with children and teenagers dealing with divorce or marital conflict in the family, and also works with their parents to help lessen conflict and minimize the impact of the divorce process on the child. She applies this broad knowledge with continuing research of divorce, marital conflict, and developmental concerns to her clinical and evaluation cases. Because her clinical interests focus on divorce, marital conflict, and parenting issues, Dr. Lepage is in a unique position to help families make the best decision about custody and visitation for their particular family situation.

Expertise of Dr. Colleen Hamilton:

Dr. Colleen Hamilton is a Licensed Psychologist and holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology with training focused on work with children, adolescents, and families. She has several years of experience working as a child psychologist, and has testified as an expert witness in family court. Dr. Hamilton is a child specialist with in-depth experience assessing children of all ages; through direct observation and/or parent descriptions of very young children, and testing with preschool children and older, she assesses children ages birth through 18. Dr. Hamilton is one of few child psychologists specialized in the birth to preschool years as well as K-12 children. She has extensive experience conducting comprehensive psychological and behavioral assessments, trauma assessments, and educational evaluations of children, teens, and adults, and has provided court-ordered therapeutic supervised visitation and reunification coordination for families. In addition to evaluations she provides play therapy to children, therapy for adolescents, and family therapy, as well as parent coaching. From the very beginning of her career, Dr. Hamilton has been focusing on children and families. The impressive breadth and depth of her understanding of child and adolescent development, combined with her understanding of family and individual dynamics, allows her to holistically view the custody situation and the uniqueness of each family.

Expertise of Additional Team Members:

Dr. Nina Solanki has extensive forensic experience. In addition to having  conducted custody evaluations and parental competency evaluations, her other forensic work prepares her to asses for areas of high risk behaviors, competency, impact of disability and/or health issues, and employability. Dr. Solanki’s experience includes evaluating and treating all ages for psychological, educational, developmental, and neuropsychological concerns.

Dr. Kevin Metz has experience providing psychological evaluations to both children and adults. He has been trained in and has extensive experience with regards to diagnostic interviewing in order to provide an accurate and comprehensive assessment of a client’s symptom picture and thus make informed recommendations. Dr. Metz specializes in substance abuse assessments, and is a great resource in evaluating to what extent substances are impacting daily functioning.

Dr. Colette Segalla is a former educator with substantial training and experience testing children for possible Learning Disabilities (LD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD, ‘ADD’). She also has extensive experience assessing and working with delinquent behavior in adolescents. In addition, Dr. Segalla is experienced in full psychological testing for children, adolescents and adults to assess possible mental health disorders, maladjustment, or difficult behavior.

Related Clinical Experience of the Lepage Associates Team:

Within our specialty area of children, adolescents, and families, we have experience in both therapy and evaluation with children and adolescents with a variety of common childhood and teen issues such as AD/HD, LD, behavior problems, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, substance use, social problems, body image concerns, Asperger’s, depression, bi-polar, anxiety, dealing with divorce, and family and school difficulties. Our experience extends to working with parents and families as well, on parenting issues, family dynamics, and helping parents and family members to support the child or teen experiencing difficulties. This broad clinical experience allows us to speak to various facets of custody decisions, such as how different custody arrangements might affect a child with AD/HD, LD, or other special or unique educational needs, or whether certain custody arrangements might elicit, exacerbate, or reduce depression or anxiety in a child. In addition, we have experience in both therapy and evaluation with adults and can speak to how a parent’s mental health may affect the parent-child relationship and parenting abilities.

We stay abreast of the most recent research data as it applies to custody considerations. We stay current on all literature related to parenting plan schedules and the pros and cons of various schedules for various age groups..

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF PARENTING PLANS / CUSTODY EVALUATIONS

. To determine the best interests of the child and a good fit for the family.
. Can be used informally by parents to aid in their amicable decisions regarding
custody and visitation.
. Can be used in court proceedings.

PARENTING PLANS

We provide assistance to help parties reach decisions on the various issues involved in parenting plans and custody arrangements. We can assist you with the parenting plan, that is, making decisions about arrangements as to where the child will live, visitation, etc., by working with you in making informed decisions based on the best interests of the child and the unique needs of your family. We will give you our verbal expert opinion as to arrangements that might work best based on our knowledge of your child and family; however, of course you make the final decisions that are then written into the divorce or separation agreement.

CUSTODY & VISITATION EVALUATIONS

Some couples decide that they want an evaluation to help determine what is in the best interests of the child with regard to the parenting plan. Psychologists who are knowledgeable in the areas of child development, family relationships, and custody can be very helpful to parents in deciding what might be the best parenting plan for their child. An evaluation does not have to be a lengthy, expensive, or adversarial process. Lepage Associates offers various types of evaluations in our tiered approach, designed to meet various information needs and cost parameters of each family. The evaluator looks at the child’s psychosocial needs, which are related to developmental age and the unique personality and temperament of the child, then looks at each parent’s strengths in meeting that child’s needs and at the unique needs of the family as a whole, and also takes into account how well the social environments of each parent (school, neighborhood, social supports, community, etc.) meet the current needs of the child. Lastly the evaluator factors in empirical data on psychosocial needs and on various custody and visitation arrangements at different ages. With that the evaluator generates an opinion as to what would likely be the best custody and visitation arrangement possibilities at this time. The evaluator provides a wealth of information and a professional opinion, but does not make the final decision. The parents utilize the expert opinion provided by the evaluator and make the final decision, and the parenting plan agreement is written into the divorce or separation agreement. If the parents cannot come to an agreement, the written report can be used in court, where the judge will make the decision. We will also be deposed by both lawyers should the case proceed to court, and will appear in court if necessary. (We encourage people to utilize the information to come to their own agreement whenever possible.)

TIERED APPROACH TO PARENTING PLAN CONSULTS AND CUSTODY EVALUATIONS

Our unique, tiered approach meets the information and cost needs of every family.

PARENTING PLAN CONSULTS

The basic interview with parents
Expert Advice Consult: This is the briefest of the consults. Parents meet us, describe the child, describe their parenting strengths and limitations as well as practical concerns, explain their initial thoughts about custody and visitation, and share any concerns or uncertainties they are facing in making a decision. We will ask several questions to gather additional relevant information. Based on the information presented and our expertise of child development and parenting plans, we then verbally share our thoughts with the parents regarding what would likely be some good parenting plan arrangements for their child and family unit. (Fee: $200.00 per hour.)
+ interview with child, and as needed review of school/medical records =
Extended Expert Advice Consult: This consult includes an interview with parents as described in the Expert Advice Consult, and also includes an interview with the child, plus as needed, a review of relevant school and/or medical/psychological records with collateral interviews of professionals. We then verbally share our thoughts with the parents regarding what would likely be some good parenting plan arrangements for their child and family unit. (Fee: $200.00/hr.)
+ written feedback =
Extended Expert Advice Consult/Written: This consult includes all of the components of the Extended Expert Advice Consult, with written feedback. (Fee: $200.00 per hour or$2,500.00 flat fee for family of up to four, whichever is less. Over four: Additional $400.00 fee for each additional child, spouse, or significant other.)
+ participation in settlement conference with parties and attorneys =
Settlement Conference: Approximately 95% of all cases settle. After receiving your feedback summary it is most likely you and your spouse will attempt to reach an agreement. Our presence can help speed this process along as we can answer any questions parties or attorneys may have about options being considered, and can participate in brainstorming healthy solutions. (Fee: $250.00 per hour port to port; we are also happy to host the settlement conference at our office as a neutral ground.)

CUSTODY EVALUATIONS

+ observation of parents with child =
Evaluation: This evaluation includes all of the components of the Extended Expert Advice Consult, plus observation of each parent and child together. We will offer a written summary to the parents regarding what would likely be the best possible parenting plan arrangements for their child and family unit. (Fee: $5,750.00 flat fee for family of up to four. Over four: Additional $500.00 fee each.)
+ testing battery relevant to parenting plan/custody issues =
Evaluation with Testing Battery: This evaluation includes all of the components of the Evaluation, plus testing of the parents and child. We will offer a written report to the parents regarding what would likely be the best possible parenting plan arrangements for their child and family unit. (Fee: $7,750.00 flat fee for a family of up to four. Over four: Additional $750.00 fee for each additional.)
+ additional (non school/medical) collateral contact reviews =
Extended Evaluation: This evaluation includes all of the components of the Evaluation with Testing Battery, plus additional collateral contact reviews, such as with caretakers, grandparents, neighbors, etc. We will offer a written report to the parents regarding what would likely be the best possible parenting plan arrangements for their child and family unit. (Fee: $8,750.00 flat fee for a family of up to four. Over four: Additional $500.00 fee for each additional.)
+ participation in settlement conference with parties and attorneys =
Settlement Conference: Approximately 95% of all cases settle. Even if your original intention was to proceed to court, after receiving the extended report you and your spouse may utilize the report to try to reach settlement. Our presence can help speed this process along as we can answer any questions parties or attorneys may have about options being considered, and can participate in brainstorming solutions. (Fee: $250.00 per hour port to port; we are happy to host the settlement conference at our office as a neutral ground.)

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS & RAISED CONCERNS

I don’t feel comfortable letting someone else make the decision about the custody of my child.
The evaluator provides a wealth of information and professional opinion, but does not make the final decision.  If you do not go to court, you and the other parent will utilize the expert opinion provided by the evaluator and will make the final decision, and your custody and visitation agreement will be written into your divorce or separation agreement.  If you do go to court, the judge will make the final ruling, taking into account the information provided by the evaluator.

How does the evaluator come up with an opinion regarding who is the “better” parent?
She doesn’t.  She analyzes the child’s psychosocial needs, which are related to developmental age and the unique personality and temperament of the child.  She then looks at each parent’s strengths and limitations in meeting that child’s needs.  She also takes into account how well the social environments of each parent (school, neighborhood, social supports, community, etc.) meet the current needs of the child, and considers the unique structure and needs of the family unit.  Lastly she factors in empirical data on psychosocial needs and on various custody and visitation arrangements at different ages.  With that she generates an opinion as to what would likely be the best custody and visitation arrangement at this time.  As you can see, this is a process that does not view one parent as “good” and one as “bad.”  All parents have strengths and limitations in parenting just as people have strengths and limitations in all skills.  The evaluator will look at skill sets and how these meet the child’s needs.

What does a custody or visitation evaluation consist of?
This depends on the type of consult or evaluation you want.  Lepage Associates offers a tiered approach which is designed to meet various information needs and cost parameters. (See above in-depth description of the Tiered Approach to Parenting Plans & Custody Evaluations.)

Time and money!  …  How much time will it take and how much will it cost?  When do I pay?

TIME: Obviously as you progress down the tiers more time is involved.  Since these build on one another, you can opt to begin with a shorter evaluation, and then progress if you feel you need more information.  (Also, the evaluator will let you know if she needs more information to offer an opinion.)  An exact amount of time is impossible to provide since each case has a differing number of family members and of collateral contacts to be interviewed, differing amounts of collateral data to review, and people test at different paces. Because of the limited hours necessary to complete verbal consults, these can typically be scheduled soon after you contact the evaluator, and can often be completed within 2-4 weeks, depending on the availability in everyone’s schedules to meet.  Evaluations take longer due to the increased number of face-to-face meetings, plus the time in contacting collateral contacts, records review, testing as necessary, and report writing.  The size of the family, number of collateral contacts, volume of records to review, and amount of testing all bear on the time line, as does everyone’s availability to meet, collateral contacts returning calls, and records being provided in a timely manner.  This complexity makes it difficult to estimate an exact number of weeks from beginning to completion of evaluations.  However, our turn-around time is excellent, and notably shorter than that of local university programs where reports are submitted by trainees and must then be reviewed by more experienced clinicians and rewritten several times before completion.

MONEY: Quick overview for evaluations for family of up to 4: $5,750 without psych testing; $7,750 with psych testing. We package our rates and thus clients can be assured of this fee, unlike evaluators who charge hourly and cannot give you a concrete price for the entire evaluation. You will find that our fees are very reasonable when compared with rates in this area of expertise.  While we hesitate to use “$200 per hour” or “$4,000-$8,000” and the word “affordable” in the same sentence, we actually keep our fees very affordable. For example, our custody evaluations begin at $5,750, whereas the average custody evaluation currently costs $8,000-$15,000. UNC used to do a beginning/basic evaluation for a fee near $5,000 where the work was done by trainees and supervised by more experienced people, but that program closed. At Lepage Associates the work is done by psychologists experienced in parenting plans and custody evaluations. Perhaps more important than the cost, you also get the highest quality at Lepage Associates. (You can find additional information in our bios on our website.) Also, we have been innovative in designing a system of parenting plan consults to help people come to agreement without needing a full custody evaluation. Our expertise is unique in this as we designed our own tiered system, whereas other custody evaluators do not also have a system for parenting plan consults.

My spouse is paying for the evaluation and I worry that will bias the evaluator.
This should not be a concern.  The evaluator is a professional and specialist fully focused on her ethical responsibility to make a determination based on what would be in the best interests of the child.  The best interests of the child are paramount.  It makes absolutely no difference who provides payment for her services, as this has zero bearing on her evaluation and final opinion.

Should each parent hire a separate psychologist and do two separate evaluations?
No.  It is not in the best interests of the child to go through the evaluation procedure twice.  Not only is it time consuming, tedious, and tiring for a child to be interviewed, observed and tested twice (with limited attention spans this process is more difficult on children than adults), in fact many tests are no longer considered reliable and valid if re-administered without an interval of several months in between administrations.  Thus due to the strain on the child and the loss of reliability and validity of the test data, Lepage Associates will only take cases in which both parents agree to use their evaluator as the sole evaluator.  Most often the evaluator engages in peer supervision and, while maintaining your confidentiality, consults with other psychologists regarding their professional opinion; thus you are often already getting more than one professional opinion on your case.  However, should the parents be unhappy with her final opinion, the evaluator will agree to provide the case file to another expert for a second opinion, and likewise she will provide second opinions on cases when provided full information.

Ideally I would like to keep costs down and avoid court.  Do we need a custody or visitation evaluation if we do not plan to go to court?  For example, could the evaluator just provide mediation services instead to help us work out the custody and visitation issue?

The majority of divorces do not go to court; parents work out the custody arrangement and have it written into the divorce or separation agreement.  There are many cost-effective ways in which Lepage Associates can assist with that process.  For example, the consult process is an effective mediation process for helping parents agree upon a custody and visitation arrangement, and it is very cost effective as it is brief.  As to whether you need a custody or visitation evaluation if you do not plan to go to court, that depends upon two major factors: (1) if you feel confident in your knowledge of what custody and visitation arrangement would best meet your child’s needs, and (2) if you and the other parent are able to reach agreement on this issue.

If you feel fairly confident that you know what custody and visitation arrangement would work well for your child, and you and the other parent are in agreement about this, then you don’t need an evaluation.  If you and the other parent are making these decisions in a fairly amicable manner but would feel better if you had a professional opinion, then a consult would be a good choice.  Also, if you and the other parent are having a hard time agreeing, then a brief evaluation can be helpful.  If you suspect that your inability to agree might be fueled by anger over the divorce, then a consult can include an initial mediation process to help you put the anger in perspective and put it aside long enough to come up with a custody and visitation agreement.  If you and the other parent have vastly differing opinions on this issue and deciding upon custody and visitation has become contentious, then a full evaluation can be very helpful.  (If cost is a concern, beginning with a consult in these cases can be a cost-effective idea as it may provide all of the information you need and thus save you the costs of a full evaluation.)  Lastly, both amicable and contentious parents may opt for a full evaluation up front if they have a child with special needs, if the custody and visitation questions in the case are complex, or if they simply want the most in-depth information possible in making their custody decision.  Also, you may find that having your evaluator attend settlement conferences is quite helpful in moving the process along to a decision that both parties can live with.

A WORD ON COST, OUR UNIQUE EXPERTISE, AND QUALITY

You will find that our fees are very reasonable when compared with rates in this area of expertise. While we hesitate to use “$200 per hour” or “$4,000-$8,000” and the word “affordable” in the same sentence, we actually keep our fees very affordable. For example, our custody evaluations begin at $5,750, whereas the average custody evaluation currently costs $8,000-$15,000. UNC used to do a beginning/basic evaluation for a fee near $5,000 where the work was done by trainees and supervised by more experienced people, but that program closed. At Lepage Associates the work is done by psychologists experienced in parenting plans and custody evaluations. Perhaps more important than the cost, you also get the highest quality at Lepage Associates. (See above Our Custody Evaluation Expertise.) Also, we have been innovative in designing a system of parenting plan consults to help people come to agreement without needing a full custody evaluation. Our expertise is unique in this as we designed our own tiered system, whereas other custody evaluators do not also have a system for parenting plan consults.